(CN) – The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 Thursday that a man convicted of murder as a teenager is not entitled to a new trial because he didn’t prove he was prejudiced by his counsel’s failure to object to a closed courtroom during jury selection.
According to court records, 15-year-old Germaine Rucker was shot in the head and back on Aug. 10, 2003, after a group of males confronted him outside a house in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston where Rucker had been selling jewelry charms.
Near the scene, Boston police found a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. A witness said the hat had fallen off the head of the young man who pulled a pistol from his pants leg.
Kentel Myrone Weaver, 16, had been wearing such a cap two weeks earlier when arrested on a drug offense, and the hat band later tested positive for Weaver’s DNA.
The case record shows that Weaver’s mother was struck by the evidence against her son when police came to her home in Roxbury on the night of Aug. 26 to question him.
After detectives left, and Mrs. Weaver raised some questions of her own, the matriarch held a marathon prayer circle and hauled the crying boy over to the police station at about 12:30 in the morning on Aug. 27.
“I shot Germaine Rucker,” the teen confessed, before the detective could even finish reading the Miranda warning.
Weaver was convicted of murder in 2006 after the Suffolk County Superior Court refused to suppress his statements to police.
The teen failed to show on appeal that his attorney’s failure to consult with a mental health expert amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel.
Weaver also claimed that a competent attorney might have been found an expert to testify about whether the confession was voluntary or coerced, but his appeal was rejected last year by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Attorneys from the Washington, D.C., law firm Mayer Brown petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up Weaver’s case. They noted they are also fighting the trial judge’s decision to close the courtroom to the public during jury empanelment, a process that took two days.
“We’re confident that the court will say that trials cannot be conducted in secret,” Mayer Brown attorney Michael Kimberly said earlier this year .
The justices agreed in January to take up the case.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected Weaver’s bid for a new murder trial, finding that a criminal defendant must prove prejudice when there was no initial objection to a “structural error” like a courtroom closure and the error is raised later through an ineffective-assistance claim.
Writing for the court’s majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that the “duty of the judiciary is to seek and to find the proper balance between the necessity for fair and just trials and the importance of finality of judgments.”
“When a structural error is preserved and raised on direct review, the balance is in the defendant’s favor, and a new trial generally will be granted as a matter of right. When a structural error is raised in the context of an ineffective-assistance claim, however, finality concerns are far more pronounced,” Kennedy wrote. “For this reason, and in light of the other circumstances present in this case, petitioner must show prejudice in order to obtain a new trial…he has not made the required showing.”
The majority noted that Weaver did not show a reasonable probability of a different outcome had his trial counsel objected to the closed courtroom, or that his counsel’s shortcomings resulted in an unfair trial.
Kennedy was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.
However, Justice Stephen Breyer dissented, and was joined by Justice Elena Kagan.
“In my view… a defendant who shows that his attorney’s constitutionally deficient performance produced a structural error should not face the additional…hurdle of demonstrating that the error changed the outcome of his proceeding,” Breyer wrote.
The dissenting opinion argues that high court precedent “views all structural errors as ‘intrinsically harmful’ and holds that any structural error warrants ‘automatic reversal’ on direct appeal ‘without regard to [its] effect on the outcome’ of a trial.” (Emphasis in original.)
“A showing that an attorney’s constitutionally deficient performance produced a structural error should consequently be enough to entitle a defendant to relief. I respectfully dissent,” Breyer wrote.